Category: King County

As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites

Kent isolation and quarantine facility
Screenshot: King County Youtube

By Erica C. Barnett

An alarming increase in COVID cases among people experiencing homelessness has been exacerbated in recent weeks, homeless service providers say, by rumors that if people enter a county-run isolation and quarantine site, they won’t be allowed to leave.

And even before these rumors began circulating widely, many unhoused people who tested positive for COVID were reluctant to enter isolation and quarantine, for reasons that ranged from active substance use to the fear that if they left an encampment, they would lose everything they had—a not unreasonable assumption, given the recent uptick in encampment sweeps.

“The resistance, in my experience, has been across the board,” Dr. Cyn Kotarski, medical director for the Public Defender Association, said. “I haven’t met anyone so far who doesn’t have some fear and some resistance to go, and that’s mostly just because it’s overwhelming. It can feel pretty scary to think that you don’t know where you’re going or why, especially when you’re taking someone out of their own environment and their own community,” Kotarski said. The PDA is a partner on several efforts to move unsheltered people into hotels during the pandemic, including Co-LEAD and JustCare.

Although early reports suggested that people living outdoors are less susceptible to COVID infection than those living in group quarters like congregate shelters, the more contagious delta variant could reverse that trend. During the week that ended September 10, King County counted 41 people experiencing homelessness who tested positive for COVID—an undercount, since it only accounts for county testing events.

According to King County Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole, as of last week, there were 22 active COVID cases associated with encampment outbreaks, defined as two or more people who have tested positive at an encampment—an “increase from baseline” of “one to four cases per month associated with encampments.” A review of the county’s weekly reports shows a steady increase in cases that began in early August and hasn’t abated.

“The facilities are not secure, and staying is totally optional. When people come in, we say, ‘Your isolation period is this long, your quarantine period is this long. If you do not want to stay the whole time, let’s talk about it.'”—Hedda McClendon, King County

The increase in COVID cases has impacted every part of the county’s service system. The county’s public health department offers testing and transportation for people who test positive, but service providers and county officials say the system is stretched thin, with long waits for transportation and even testing. According to King County COVID Emergency Services Group director Hedda McClendon, the current wait for a test by the county’s HEART E Team, one of two teams that performs testing at homeless encampments, is between five and seven days. When someone living in an encampment tests positive, an outreach provider often must wait with them for hours until a county vehicle arrives to take them to isolation and quarantine, increasing the likelihood that they’ll give up and decide not to go. 

Just getting someone on the phone, outreach workers say, can be a challenge. “You call in and they take your number, but if you call back, it’s an automated line and you have to try to reach the person you were talking to,” Dawn Shepard, the south district outreach coordinator for REACH, said. If an outreach worker or unsheltered person misses a call from the county’s COVID hotline, Shepard says, they’ll have to start the whole process over again, “and by that point the person’s just losing interest.” Currently, Shepard added, “It’s taking us about eight hours from coordination to pickup.”

The county, through a partnership with T-Mobile, has handed out about 500 cell phones for outreach providers to distribute to clients, according to Cole, but Stewart says they need more, along with rapid COVID tests so that people don’t have to wait for days to get tested. Currently, rapid tests are hard to come by and expensive when they are available.

Meanwhile, the number of people staying at the Kent isolation and quarantine site, where 60 rooms are currently available, has increased from zero to 50 virtually “overnight,” McClendon said, stretching resources thin. If all the rooms fill up, the county will have to start triaging people based on test results, exposure, and other qualifications, turning people away if their cases aren’t severe.

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Shepard said that in the early days of the pandemic, “we really didn’t see folks that were living outside contracting the disease…  largely because the viral load is much lower when you’re outside. Now, though, I think it’s safe to say that with the delta variant, our clients don’t have the same protection, because we’re seeing it all over the city.”

Shelter providers, including Compass and WHEEL, also confirm that they’ve seen an increase in cases; according to WHEEL organizer Michele Marchand, COVID “is ripping through many, many homeless programs and communities,” including WHEEL’s women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church on First Hill, which has seen at least 11 positive cases in the past few weeks. “We’ve had to stop doing intakes now because of this outbreak,” Marchand continued, adding that the organization is seeking funds for hotel vouchers “to meet the immediate need during this current crisis.”

Charlene Mitchell, the program manager at the Compass Housing-run women’s shelter Jan and Peter’s Place, said that the shelter requires people who test positive to stay “in their bed area” while they wait to be taken to the site in Kent, a process that’s considerably faster than testing and moving people living unsheltered. (Currently, the county uses Yellow Cabs for this purpose). She can remember one recent case when a woman left the shelter for the Kent site and decided not to stay. “She turned around [after arriving] and stayed outside in the streets and at the bus stop” after family members refused to take her in. “She recovered, but I don’t know who all she infected” while she was contagious, Mitchell said.

Shepard says that she’s encountered an increasing number of unsheltered people who tell her they have COVID-like symptoms but don’t want to be tested or go into isolation and quarantine because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed to leave. “There was this big push, when isolation and quarantine opened, that they were not going to hold people against their will, but now there are stories coming out about that happening to people.” Shepard says she takes these stories “with a grain of salt—when I’ve asked who has had that experience, it’s just like, ‘everyone knows'”—but says they’ve had an impact nonetheless. “The big thing I’m hearing right now is, ‘No, I don’t want to go because they won’t let me leave.'” Continue reading “As COVID Cases at Encampments and Shelters Rise, Many Are Reluctant to Enter County Quarantine Sites”

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”

Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man

Det

By Paul Kiefer

Concluding their investigation into a fatal 2019 shooting by King County Sheriff’s Office detectives, the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) sharply criticized the sheriff’s office for failing to learn from a string of similar shootings and outlined 23 policy and training recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The recommendations accompanied OLEO’s report on the killing of 36-year-old Anthony Chilchott by plainclothes detectives.

In November 2019, Detective George Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, who was wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, parked next to a power station in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, and the detectives were under instructions not to confront him directly.

Without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott, who was unarmed, in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the SUV and broke Chilcott’s window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht fired Alvarez,for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” during the fatal confrontation near Enumclaw in November 2019. She reprimanded Lerum for failing to wear a protective vest and failing to identify himself as a police officer, but he remains on the force as a deputy.

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During a presentation before the King County Council on Tuesday, OLEO policy analyst Katy Kirschner said the sheriff’s office had failed to adopt adequate training and policies for plainclothes operations, and that these gaps contributed to Chilcott’s death. Kirschner also said the sheriff’s office hasn’t done enough to impress upon officers that “speculative or generalized fears” that a suspect could harm bystanders aren’t a justification for using force. “Top-down messaging is a key part of making these reforms work,” she said.

OLEO brought up similar points when it reviewed the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens by plainclothes sheriff’s deputies in 2017..

In their report, OLEO reiterated its longstanding recommendation that the sheriff’s office conduct in-person, recorded interviews with officers less than a day after a shooting or other serious incident. Currently, the King County Sheriff’s Office can only require officers to provide signed statements 48 hours after a serious incident; in the Chilcott case, Alvarez and Lerum didn’t provide statements until eight days after the shooting, and they weren’t interviewed until the sheriff’s office began an internal investigation eight months later.

“I don’t think I can overemphasize the importance of collecting statements from officers in a timely manner,” Kirschner said, adding that written statements are far less valuable than in-person interviews with an investigator, who can ask officers questions that might not otherwise come up. Continue reading “Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man”

As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain

Via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

This post has been updated. 

Seattle’s ongoing expansion of “tiny house villages” could stall out as the new regional homelessness authority takes over responsibility for King County’s homelessness system. The RHA’s director, Marc Dones, told PubliCola this week that the “proliferation” of tiny houses needs to end, and that short-term approaches like shelter and sanctioned encampments should be replaced by new investments in housing construction and acquisition, along the lines of King County’s “Health Through Housing” program.

Earlier this year, the city council voted to fund six new tiny house villages using a combination of city funds (for operations) and COVID relief dollars from the state (for capital costs). But so far, the Human Services Department has not published a request for proposals (RFP) for those villages—the first step for approved funding to get out the door. Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) director Sharon Lee says HSD seems to be slow-walking the application process until the regional authority takes over all the city’s homelessness contracts at the end of the year.

“They say it’s up to the regional authority whether there are new tiny house villages at the end of the year, which makes no sense to us” because the state funding is already earmarked for this purpose, Lee told PubliCola.

UPDATE: HSD said on Friday that it will not put out a request for proposals to build the new tiny house villages until they get more guidance from the new regional authority at a meeting of the RHA’s implementation board in September. HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrmann said that since the money the state provided is “one-time capital dollars… While the one-time funding is important, providers need to know that on-going operations are committed in order to invest the time and resources into responding to an RFP that, as a general rule, requires the provider to propose a program model, staffing structure and budget.”

Specifically, Rehrmann said, providers need to be able to demonstrate where three years’ worth of funding for operations would come from; since the state funding is only for capital costs, Rehrmann said, that would be impossible. “HSD will continue to work closely with the KCRHA on the successful transition of the homelessness program investments in 2022 and on the stand up of the new shelter that has received full funding (for both stand up and ongoing operations and services) in 2021,” she said.”

This “full funding” stipulation has been an ongoing source of contention between HSD and the city council, and not just on tiny house villages: Council members, including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have argued that the council only budgets on an annual basis, so it’s impossible to guarantee ongoing funds for any project; that doesn’t prevent the city from funding all sorts of things that require some capital investment.

Beneath the debate over timing and jurisdiction is a larger question: Should the region continue building new tiny house villages, which provide long-term shelter to several hundred people, or focus on other, more permanent investments? RHA director Marc Dones says the answer to this perennial shelter-vs.-housing debate is obvious: The region needs more housing more than it needs more shelter.

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter. What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.” —King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“The focus that we need to have is on housing, and I simply cannot stress that enough,” they said. “Shelter is not permanent, and we are locked into a proliferation of shelter options rather than a proliferation of housing options and we must course correct on that. Tiny homes, as a subset of a broader shelter strategy, make sense, but they’re not an end point and we shouldn’t proliferate them as they are.”

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter,” Dones continued. “What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.”

Instead, Dones wants to focus on permanent housing and “bridge housing”—temporary group housing for people who need supportive services in the short term as they transition to either a private-market apartment or permanent supportive housing. “People have had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about a right to shelter, and I think that is not consistent with our community values. We need to have a right to housing.”

City council member Andrew Lewis says he agrees with Dones that permanent housing should be the region’s ultimate goal. But he disagrees that housing should be the only, or even paramount, priority right now. Pointing to the proliferation of unauthorized encampments across the city, Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said, “I’m not going to go to my constituents and say, ‘Look, deal with that encampment on your street—or, heck, I’m not going to go to my unhoused constituents and say, ‘Eventually we’re going to build housing somewhere, but until then have fun living in your tent.’ We need to be able to offer people something better while we are building the thing they really need, which is some kind of permanent housing.”

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While people living unsheltered often balk at the idea of moving into a congregate shelter, including less-crowded “enhanced” shelters like the Downtown Emergency Service Center-run Navigation Center, they often will accept placements in tiny house villages, which offer more privacy and security than other types of shelter. Lee, from LIHI, said it’s “misguided to be attacking tiny houses when tiny houses are the preferred option for people who are camping out or sleeping out. We go to any encampment, and every place we go, people say, ‘We want a tiny house.'” 

But the things that make tiny house villages desirable may also contribute to the fact that people stay in tiny houses longer than any other type of shelter. Although the villages have a fairly strong track record for moving people into housing (between 27 and 65 percent of tiny house residents eventually move into housing, according to King County’s most recent performance data, compared to a 15 percent average across all types of emergency shelter), people tend to live in them for months or even years—far longer than the regional goal of 90 days. Continue reading “As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain”

County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack

Seattle - City Hall Park & King County Courthouse 05
Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

1. The King County Council added $248,000 to the county’s budget last week to hire a new recruiter for the King County Sheriff’s office in response to two years of unusually high attrition. The council eliminated the position last year.

In the past two years, the sheriff’s office has seen roughly 15 percent of its sworn officers resign or retire. Fifty deputies have resigned from the department in 2021, setting the county on pace to surpass the 69 deputies who left in 2020. Last year’s attritions marked a 42 percent increase from 2019. “Because these aren’t vacancies we planned for,” council president Claudia Balducci said, the sheriff’s office should be able to restore its ranks while the county considers whether to downsize the office in the future.

The council’s 2021-2022 budget included funding for 41 sworn positions in the sheriff’s office that are currently unfilled, but few qualified candidates have applied for those positions. Of the 351 applicants to entry-level positions in the sheriff’s office since January, only 79 have met basic hiring criteria, including a clean criminal record and bill of health.

But not every member of the council thought that funding the recruiter position should be a priority for the council. Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, cautioned his colleagues against dipping into the county’s general fund until the council can look at its budget with fresh eyes after American Rescue Plan Act dollars dry up. “If I looked all around county government looking for one more position we could fund,” he said, “it wouldn’t be this one.” Upthegrove, along with council members Joe McDermott, Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay, voted against funding the position.

In the same meeting, the council also voted to set aside $5.6 million to provide refunds for King County residents who have paid legal financial obligations for drug possession convictions that the Washington State Supreme Court rendered void with the landmark Blake decision in February. The state will reimburse counties for any spending on Blake-related refunds.

2. In response to complaints about public safety at the downtown King County Courthouse—including, most recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself—the city is reportedly planning to remove an encampment in City Hall Park next door. A sweep could happen as early as this week. Although the alleged courthouse assailant has no known connections to the park, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn and other officials have made the connection; in a statement about the attack last week, Dunn called for “the immediate closure of City Hall Park and the danger it poses to our employee[s], residents, and the community.”

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REACH has been doing outreach in the park for the past several weeks, with the goal of moving people from encampments into hotels through JustCARE, a program that provides hotel rooms, case management, and services to people living unsheltered in Pioneer Square and the International District. Last week, the city signed a contract with the JustCARE alliance to fund 89 more JustCARE slots, which the PDA had hoped to use to shelter the people living in the park.

In a statement Sunday, the alliance, which includes the Public Defender Association, the Urban League, and the Asian Counseling and Referral Alliance, among others, said that “many of the people in the park arrived there after being removed from other locations without offers of non-congregate shelter that matched their situation”—a reference to ongoing encampment sweeps by the city. “Those who are rightly upset about conditions in the park should join the many voices opposing shuffling people around the city—that practice contributed significantly to this situation,” the letter says.

“Moving people out of the park to no clear destination will not solve courthouse or neighborhood safety, or address the situation of anyone currently living there,” the letter concludes. “It feels like action—but it actually makes matters worse.”

For years, the city has presented unsheltered people with “offers” of shelter that are less appealing than sleeping outdoors, including beds in congregate shelters that lack the privacy or security of a private room, and dispersing them to other locations when they “refuse” these offers. Sweeping people from City Hall Park will only displace them to new locations—which is how many of them ended up in the park in the first place.

3. One of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s most senior cabinet members, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong, is leaving the city later this month for a new job as Chief Recovery and Resilience Office for Snohomish County.

Durkan, who announced she would not seek reelection in January, is leaving office at the end of this year after a single term. She currently has two deputy mayors, both appointed after their predecessors left for new positions. Tiffany Washington, the former head of the city’s homelessness division, replaced Shefali Ranganathan, and David Moseley, a former deputy mayor, came out of retirement to replace Casey Sixkiller, who quit to run for mayor. Continue reading “County Hires New Cop Recruiter; Deputy Mayor Moves On; Calls for Park Sweep Increase After Unrelated Attack”

Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

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Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”

Evening Fizz: County Picks New Oversight Director, Report Recommends Shifting Half of 911 Calls Away from Cops, City Directory Disappears

1. The Metropolitan King County Council voted 8-1 on Tuesday to appoint Tamer Abouzeid, a former investigator with Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, to serve as the next permanent director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which oversees the King County Sheriff’s Office. The sole vote against Abouzeid’s appointment was from Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Federal Way and Auburn.

Abouzeid was one of two finalists for the position; the other candidate, Eddie Aubrey, is the head of the oversight office for the Richmond, California police department. During his interview last week, Abouzeid described an eight-year plan to develop OLEO’s role as a “mini-think tank” on police reform and oversight, as well as a player in the county’s negotiations with law enforcement unions; at a previous community meeting, Abouzaid also expressed support for future state legislation that would restrict counties from adopting law enforcement union contracts that limit oversight.

Currently, Abouzeid works as a civil rights attorney with the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; he also briefly ran for a seat in the Illinois state senate in 2020, though he withdrew before the Democratic Party primary.

Current interim OLEO Director Adrienne Wat has led the office since last fall, when the council narrowly voted not to renew the contract of the last permanent director, Deborah Jacobs, after an independent investigation found Jacobs made a series of inappropriate remarks to her staff during her four-year tenure.

Both Jacobs and King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez later alleged that her ouster was partially engineered by Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. According to Mansanarez, the sheriff attempted to persuade Mansanarez’s union—which represents most sworn employees of the King County Sheriff’s Office—to agree to wear body-worn video cameras in exchange for removing Jacobs, who often clashed with both Johanknecht and the union. Johanknecht denies the allegations.

OLEO’s first director, Charles Gaither, also left the office in 2014 after conflicts with then-sheriff John Urquhart. Following his departure, Gaither received a $84,500 settlement from the county after alleging that sheriff’s office staff harassed him based on his race. Jacobs also filed a discrimination claim against the county after her departure last fall; that litigation is ongoing.

Abouzeid will take over in September, only months before the county’s contract with the KCPOG expires and before the sheriff becomes an appointed position—a shift that will almost certainly bring a new sheriff into office.

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2. A team of city employees assembled by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan last September presented a report to the city council’s public safety committee on Tuesday that proposed shifting up to 12 percent of the calls for service currently handled by the Seattle Police Department to other responders in the near future—roughly 48,000 calls a year, or six percent of SPD’s officer hours.

Mayoral staffer Chrissie Grover-Roybal told the council that a portion of the calls 911 dispatchers can shift to non-police responders in the short term are so-called “person down” calls, which involve someone who is either asleep or unconscious in public, and other low-level welfare checks that present relatively little risk to the responders. Last Friday, Durkan appeared alongside council member Lisa Herbold and the heads of the city’s public safety agencies to announce a proposal to create a new unit to handle those low-acuity crisis calls—a new Fire Department unit tentatively called “Triage One,” which could call for backup from other responders as needed. 

But on Tuesday, Herbold pointed out that Triage One, as currently proposed, would only handle a small fraction of the 48,000 calls that the team concluded do not require a police response. Julie Kline, the mayor’s senior public safety advisor, responded that the Triage One proposal will only be an early step in shifting low-level 911 calls away from police.

In the long term, the report suggests that alternative, non-police responders could eventually handle as many as half the calls to which police currently respond.

The team’s estimates relied heavily on an analysis of SPD’s calls for service by the Oakland-based National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). Researchers from the NICJR pointed to nearly 200 call types that could be low-acuity enough not to merit a police response; in their report, however, the interdepartmental team only proposed shifting 28 of those call types to non-police responders in the near future.

The team cast the proposals as an opportunity to transfer a portion of SPD’s workload to accommodate a smaller number of officers available to respond to emergency calls: since June 2020, more than 250 sworn officers have left SPD. “Offloading some of our service hours begins to make up for the people we’ve lost,” said Chris Fisher, SPD’s chief strategy officer.

3. The city of Seattle’s IT department quietly eliminated the online directory of city staffers that was the only place where members of the public (and journalists) could access contact information for the majority of people who work at the city. The public-facing directory was replaced last week with a 404 error page; it has since been updated with links to contact spokespeople for various departments, as well as the generic public-facing pages for each department. However, anyone who wants to contact a city staffer who is not a designated point of contact for the department won’t find that information on seattle.gov.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office provided a statement from the city’s interim Chief Technology Officer, Jim Loter, who said the directory had to be taken down “because the underlying application code, database, and server were beyond ‘end-of-life’ and could no longer be supported, secured, or maintained at current levels.” Loter said the city is currently working on a replacement system and hopes to have one in place by the end of the year.

“This was an unplanned change so it will take time for us to ramp up and staff a project team to finalize the specifications and develop the replacement solution,” Loter said, adding, “I completely understand that the removal of this service makes it more difficult to contact individual staff in the City. However, I assure you that the change was made solely due to operational reasons and not to intentionally obfuscate public information.”

Even if all goes smoothly and the city restores the directory before the end of the year (a big if), that will still mean almost half a year in which ordinary citizens and journalists lack access to this basic public information. No one should have to file a public records request—or convince a gatekeeper—to find out how to contact the right person at the city.

The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check

By Erica C. Barnett

On Wednesday afternoon, the city council’s homelessness committee will get a long-awaited update from the city’s homelessness division about what the division, and the homeless service providers the city funds, have done over the past seven months to move people into shelter and housing—including a report on the two hotel-based shelters the city belatedly funded as part of its pandemic response earlier this year.

Both hotels—the 58-room King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, and the 139-room Executive Pacific, run by the Low-Income Housing Institute—are nearing the halfway mark on their 10-month leases. Yet neither has made much visible progress toward a key goal of their contracts: Moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness and into permanent housing, using short-term rapid rehousing subsidies to help fund apartments on the private market.

While both rapid rehousing programs have enrolled a similar percentage of clients into rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually identified housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments.

After resisting calls to open hotels to shelter people living outdoors during the COVID pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office announced it was signing short-term leases on the two hotels in February. The plan, announced by then-deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller (who quit to run for mayor) and City Councilmember Andrew Lewis last October, was to take people directly off the streets, stabilize them and assess their needs, and move most of them quickly into apartments using rapid rehousing subsidies administered through separate contracts with the Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services, respectively. By cycling most clients quickly through the hotels and into private-market apartments, proponents said, the hotels could serve hundreds of people.

The reality, however, hasn’t lived up to the initial promise. While both Chief Seattle Club and Catholic Community Services have signed up a similar percentage of clients for their rapid rehousing programs, few people have actually found housing, much less moved out of the hotels and into apartments. (Although the online presentation says the Chief Seattle Club has enrolled no households in its rapid rehousing program, its executive director, Derrick Belgarde, says the current number is 38). At the Executive Pacific, 17 people have moved into apartments with rapid rehousing subsidies—seven more than the total three weeks ago. At King’s Inn, not a single person has moved out using a rapid rehousing voucher. Several people have exited both programs into other types of housing—moving in with relatives, for example—and some simply left the hotels and didn’t return.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly. “It’s going to be hard to find them a place they can afford with little to no income,” Belgarde said. “With their underlying conditions, they’re going to need permanent supportive housing.”

One option, Belgarde said, would be moving some of the people currently at King’s Inn into ?ál?al, a Club-owned 80-unit studio apartment building that’s opening in Pioneer Square in October. Some of those living at King’s Inn could use rapid rehousing vouchers to live at ?ál?al, for a year, Belgarde said, and then, if they couldn’t afford market-rate housing, they could apply to move into Sacred Medicine House, a 125-unit permanent supportive housing development in Lake City that’s supposed to open in October 2022. Both buildings, which are designed to cater specifically to Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, are subject to fair housing law, so ensuring that their residents are by and large Native is a matter of getting people’s applications in quickly.

Belgarde points out that most of the people living at King’s Inn have multiple challenges that will make it difficult or impossible to ever pay market rent. Nearly 90 percent have mental health conditions or substance use disorders; 65 percent are chronically homeless, and 29 percent are elderly.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the homelessness committee, said he initially hoped that the hotels would enable the city to “rapidly house hundreds of people … but that does not seem to be where we are at right now.” Instead, he said, the hotels have turned into a “bottleneck” while the subsidies go unused.

One option, Lewis said, might be to “open up” access to the subsidies to other providers, such as the Public Defender Association and its JustCare program, whose clients might be a better fit for rapid rehousing. Rapid rehousing programs typically best for people who can return to full employment before the subsidy ends—people facing temporary setbacks, not permanent disability. Continue reading “The City’s Progress Report on Homelessness Is Also a Reality Check”

Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.”

By Erica C. Barnett

In March, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority appointed Marc Dones, a peripatetic homelessness policy consultant, to lead the agency charged with creating a unified, regional approach to homelessness. The authority was already seven months behind schedule when Dones was appointed, and their short-term task will be hiring dozens of staff and migrating hundreds of contracts with homeless service providers from Seattle’s Human Services Department to the RHA—a mundane but massive task.

In the long term, the agency is supposed to adopt a truly regional approach to homelessness, bridging the gaps that have long existed between different parts of the county—urban, suburban, wealthy, working-class, exurban, and rural. This policy framework could have profound impacts on how cities prioritize spending, their response to encampments, and whether they focus on quick “fixes” like shelter or longer-term solutions like housing subsidies (and what kind.) I

Dones, who’s lived in Ohio, New Jersey, Boston, New York, and Michigan, is new to Seattle, but not to the regional authority, whose basic outlines they shaped as a consultant to King County in 2019. Dones has said their first priority is hiring up staff for the authority and moving all of HSD’s contracts to the new agency by the end of this year—an ambitious timeline, to say the least. PubliCola sat down with Dones last week to talk about their approach to homelessness, the magnitude of the problem in King County, and whether a “regional” approach can work in a region where there’s so much disagreement about the basics, like what causes homelessness and how to fix it.

PubliCola: This region has shifted its approach to homelessness many times in the last 10 years. We got away from the idea that people need to transition slowly from unsheltered to housed, but replaced it with the equally extreme idea that almost everyone just needs a short-term subsidy to get them on their feet until they can pay for a market-rate apartment on their own. Now we’re somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that not all unhoused people have the same needs but still using the same menu of options. Do you think the region’s current understanding of the causes and cures for homelessness is correct, or are we still falling short?

Marc Dones: I think we’re getting there. There’s still a lot of discourse around substance use and behavioral health that is not statistically correct. The driver of homelessness is economic, and when you when you do population segmentation, only between 15 and 20 percent of people experiencing homelessness have severe behavioral health or substance use issues. The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing. We have a segment that does have health concerns, but from my perspective, we need to be centered on the economics first and foremost, and thinking about how do we essentially create housing options for folks in the zero to 30 percent space.

“The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing.”

I think that where we are now, I hope, is recognizing that it’s a menu, not just “do the one thing.” People need options, and not every person needs the same stuff. And so we need to be personalizing how we are doing our work at sort of all levels, both through program design and the regional plan. If Spotify can create these bespoke playlists based on a couple things I toss into it every couple months, then we as system administrators can also seek to get to the same level of personalization and curation. Not through algorithms, but through human-centered design and dignity-centered work.

Government actors often talk about the need for better data and by-name lists of all people experiencing homelessness and the services they’re accessing i the system. Can you give a concrete example of how better data or an improved by-name list would improve the life of an unhoused person?

When I talk about the by-name list that I want us to have, it’s not just a list of names. I want us to know who’s out there, where they are, what are their needs, and what’s our plan. So I am really thinking about a database where we are really able to say on a granular and person by person level, here’s what this person needs. And I think that that the data itself does not necessarily improve the delivery of the service. I think that what the data is really going to help us do is appropriately identify and advocate for the right amount of funding. That, for me, is where I see data improving our capacity.

I’ll also say that the ability to gather that data is not just about asking people more questions. We really are trying to take an approach that is relational in its focus. And so we’re really trying to think about how we develop and deploy a peer navigation workforce that provides supports for folks for from the lens of, “Hey, I’ve experienced homelessness.”

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Peer navigation has has really been efficacious in the behavioral health space and in the recovery space, and in the violence space. We haven’t really leaned into it in in the homelessness and housing space. And I don’t know why. But I think that the Lived Experience Coalition and other folks who have experienced homelessness have indicated a hunger to be able to do that kind of work. And we haven’t really acknowledged that or provided pathways for them to do it. And so we’re really keen on listening to that request and activating it. We really want to want to step away from invasive, repetitive ways of getting that information, and situate all of it inside relational architecture and trust.

What will that look like in practice, in terms of contracting and the way that money gets spent and the way that people get hired? What kind of changes can we expect to see in the homeless service system?

The first big shift will be that, moving into 2022, the authority will be the contract issuer. The city contracts will sunset and the county contracts will be migrated to us as well. And the authority will issue 2022 contracts. From that point on, we will also be the policy lead and helping to navigate the difficulties that arise. In ‘22, we will develop a whole system rebid that we’ll put out in the summer. And then in ’23, we’ll have a whole new system,  full stop, very night and day, I suspect.

Alongside that, a third piece of business that we’re developing is around what we’re calling bridge housing. We have identified that there’s a gap in the system—we have the permanency of permanent supportive housing and we have shelter, but we don’t have a lot of stuff really in between. And so from a systems perspective, what that means is that the waiting lists for a lot of that stuff can be very long—sometimes many, many years.

“Administratively what we’ve said to people is, ‘You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.’ And that’s not acceptable.”

And so what that means is that even if we never said it out loud, administratively what we’ve said to people is, “You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.” And that’s not acceptable. We need to have something that is permanent, that is housing, and that allows people to have stability and to have lives while whatever the thing that they are waiting for is coming online. We really need to have something that is in the middle.

I really want to be clear when I say it needs to be not time-limited. How long a person can be there shouldn’t be dependent on how long it will take them to get to the thing that is their thing. Or if they identify another pathway. If they get there, spend a year, and they’re like, ‘Actually, you know, I don’t think I need that supportive housing, I got this job, or I’m gonna move in with my whatever,’ they can choose to leave. There will be no “Oh, you have 24 months.”

Dow Constantine has suggested that the hotels the county is purchasing with Health Through Housing dollars will be one-stop shops for services, including connections to permanent supportive housing elsewhere, treatment, and other services that aren’t necessarily covered by the tax. Do you think this approach is enough to put a substantial dent in the problem, and have you seen it work elsewhere on the scale the county is talking about (1300 vouchers, 1600 hotel rooms, and 500 new enhanced shelter spaces all told)?

What we are looking at is not necessarily hotel/motel acquisition, but more at single- and multifamily acquisition as a strategy. But I do I agree with the fundamentals of the county position, that that does begin to get us towards scale. One of the things that that we often say on our team is that when we are talking about solutions, we have to be talking about thousands every time. We can never really be talking about hundreds, because the rough estimate is that there are about 15,000 people in the county who probably need support from our agency in some way, shape, or form. And so we really always have to be saying 2,000, 3,000, 4,000. Continue reading “Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.””

Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?

King County Executive Dow Constantine

By Erica C. Barnett

King County Executive Dow Constantine drew his first significant challenger this year in state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), who’s running at the three-term incumbent from the left. So it would be easy to conclude that Constantine’s big push to announce the purchase of hotels around the county for housing and shelter—five since May, including three in the last three weeks—is timed to capture support and votes in the August 3 primary election, paving the way for yet another big win in November.

And maybe it is. But the purchases also represent a major shift in policy for the region, one that could make a noticeable dent in the number of people sleeping outdoors across the county. The first big difference from previous policy: The county is buying, not renting, the buildings, using revenues from a new countywide sales tax, branded Health Through Housing, to fund the purchases and pay for ongoing services for the people who will live in the former hotel rooms.

That means that unlike the city of Seattle, which is renting two hotels for ten months, the county’s placements won’t come with an end date, creating flexibility for people to stay there for a few weeks to years, depending on their needs.

“Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.” —King County Executive Dow Constantine

“It is not intended to be the forever home for everyone who comes here,” Constantine said during a press tour of a newly purchased Holiday Inn Express in North Seattle earlier this month. “What we want is for people to be able to move past this kind of assistance and onto more self sufficiency.” But, he added, “Nobody who comes here needs to fear that they’re going to be cast back out on the streets. …If this is the right fit for you, you could stay here for a very long time.”

Capital costs (purchasing and retrofitting the buildings to serve as long-term shelter and housing) will make up, at minimum, 60 percent of spending on the hotels, with the rest reserved for behavioral health and “housing-related services” under the legislation that authorized King County to impose the tax. “It’s one thing to purchase the property, which is an expensive endeavor,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said during a Monday press briefing inside a 102-room former Clarion Inn the county just purchased in that city. “But more important, after that, is to ensure that those services continue.” 

The second difference is that the hotels are opening all over the region, not just in Seattle—including in cities that have adopted policies that are starkly at odds with the concept of regionalism, such as Renton’s efforts to ban emergency shelter and Auburn’s vote to criminalize sleeping in public spaces. The hotels are generally in areas that already allow hotels or housing, which means they won’t be subject to the kind of lengthy zoning debates that can doom projects that serve unsheltered people.

The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

Whether the hotel purchases represent a true change of heart by suburban cities remains to be seen. The concept of a “regional approach to homelessness” has been beset from the beginning by objections from suburban cities and rural areas, who argue that homelessness in their communities requires a unique approach, which is usually code for “not what Seattle is doing.”

The new King County Regional Homelessness authority is already hard at work on multiple “sub-regional plans” for various parts of the county, including South King County, the Eastside, and the Snoqualmie Valley, according to RHA CEO Marc Dones. This suggests that the main “transformation” the new authority will achieve, at least in the short term, is administrative: Seattle’s homelessness division will cease to exist, and the county and city’s efforts (and funding) will move to new authority.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

On Tuesday, Backus said she hoped that there wouldn’t be an excessive number of sub-regional plans, but argued that relatively affordable cities in South King County require a different approach than a large, expensive city like Seattle, particularly when it comes to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“I’ve often said that what works in Auburn won’t work in Seattle, and what works in Seattle won’t work in Bellevue,” Backus said. Those differences, she said, include things like the new criminal penalty for sleeping in public spaces—a proposal that likely wouldn’t fly in Seattle, and was controversial even in Auburn. Backus said “members of the Puyallup Tribe” have complained that garbage from encampments in wetlands are getting caught in their fish traps, for example. “It’s not OK. We are damaging the land,” Backus said. Continue reading “Can King County’s “Health Through Housing” Plan Make a Visible Dent in Homelessness?”